CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Former President Bill Clinton said Friday that struggling rural regions like coal-dependent southern West Virginia, a once-Democratic stronghold now firmly red, should be the focus of new energy investments and infrastructure improvement.
In a 41-minute speech at the state Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, Clinton focused more on economic woes in rural West Virginia and his home state of Arkansas than on promoting his wife, presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It's one of his early stops as he becomes more active on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton. He recently headlined fundraisers in Chicago, Atlanta and suburban Kansas City, and he'll headline one in suburban Detroit this month.
He likened himself to "an old horse you keep in the stable, and then an election comes along, and you come in and give me a few extra oats" and "see if you can get a ride just one more time."
A popular figure in West Virginia, Clinton in 1996 was the last Democrat to win the state in a presidential race.
Clinton questioned why there aren't assembly companies for windmills and solar plants investing in the state's coal-dependent reaches, and said universal broadband should be extended into the area. He said "serious investment" is needed in the area, not just additional job training.
Focus should be placed on finding "a reasonable transition for people in this part of the world, so we don't waste the best years of their lives and expect to them to get by on a disability check," he said.
He blasted Republican presidential hopefuls, saying, "In the first debate, it looked like they were taking a theology test, to see who could hit the most politically correct answer to show the most intense hatred of government."
West Virginia and other reaches of Appalachia have veered away from the Democratic party under President Barack Obama's administration, largely because of his push to curb airborne pollution from coal-fired power plants. West Virginia Democrats lost a lot of ground in the 2014 election, and Sen. Joe Manchin remains the state's lone Democrat in Congress. This year, they yielded control of the state Legislature to Republicans for the first time in more than eight decades.
A high-profile governor's race tops the 2016 ballot for West Virginia as Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is hitting his limit of two consecutive terms. Billionaire Jim Justice and state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler are running on the Democratic side, while state Senate President Bill Cole is the GOP's lead candidate.
Clinton appeared at the West Virginia dinner in 1988 while governor of Arkansas. He returned in 2007 while his wife was campaigning for president.
In 1996, Clinton received 51.5 percent of state's general election vote. "You haven't voted Democratic since and I want to change that," he said Friday.